If I thought my ten year college reunion was touching, attending my parents’ college reunion was another thing altogether. The college completed 100 years and people were coming in from across the world. I attended one with them 10 years ago and then I attended one about 3 weeks ago. People have college reunions all the time, but the difference here is that these people belong to a small college and the reunions invite you to come with family and friends. And so it was that I tagged along with them and ended up meeting OJ, in attendance with her dad. We struck up a friendship that has only grown stronger each year. She sat there with her broken legs, I danced, we chatted, we carried on a tradition unknowingly, of becoming part of the family.
Attending a college reunion shows you a side to your parents you’ve never seen before. Ma has always been slim and lovely, but she’s always been Mama. Smart, business brain, practical, unwilling to show temper or passion, efficient. Dad has been hot headed, musical, fun, forgetful, intelligent. You think you know these two people, and then you put them back in a college setting and all of a sudden you wonder if you really ever did know them.
Quitting my job was the best thing I could have done because I went home for a week and cleaned up my parents’ home before the big alumni get together. The first night was to be a huge party at their place and were to have many people staying with them. Mum and dad did tell me to stay on and attend but I went back because the kids’ Dussehra holidays were over.
For three days before the event, my house was like a hotel. All people heading to the meet were going via Delhi and I was picking up, dropping, taking home, feeding, and then putting them on a train to my home town. The excitement was infectious but I didn’t think it would be right to up and leave.
Until the morning of the first day of the reunion. I called home and the chaos in the background literally called out to me. That and Ma’s voice – she sounded exhausted and I felt like a terrible daughter for not being there when she needed me. And so I took it as a sign from above when Cousin J called and said Delhi University was on strike and she wanted to go home for the reunion too (it says something about the fun people my parents and their friends are if all of us younger generation were dying to go back and meet them). The kids’ school declared an unexpected day off. And the OA took one look at my face and gave me the DDLJ line – Ja beti, jee le apni zindagi. Go to Allahabad and be with your parents. And so it was that Cousin J and I frantically rushed around trying to get tickets to leave immediately. Since I was going with her she didn’t even mind sitting on the floor and travelling, which was to be our last resort. Fortunately tickets were managed and then the usual happened – I was short on time.
She was at the railway station, feeding her face. And I was in a car rushing towards the railway station, fighting traffic and curbing the urge to whack the idiotic driver on his head as he took wrong decisions and got stuck in wrong lanes. I called the OA – 20 minutes away from the station, 20 minutes for the train to leave. He sighed, said he had nothing to add, and hung up. I called Cousin J, who with all the enthusiasm of youth said – I’ll jump on anyway. Until I reminded her that I had the tickets.
We pulled into the station just in time and I began running. Now one might imagine that I would be travelling light because I was going only for two days, but no… I had 4 bags. Two of them full of clothes and toys that I had kept aside in my usual spring cleaning for the children of all the domestic help at home. A bag full of sarees and salwar suit options for Cousin J who suddenly called and said she had nothing to wear. And a bag for myself. There was no coolie in sight and I had no option but to pick up everything and run because I had no time to wait for the driver to park and help me.
I was running down the platform and the deja vu was worth a post by itself. Thousands of missed trains later, I find myself still running to catch one. Bags whacking my legs, knees aching, shoulders paining and heart on the verge of attacking me with an umbrella. The train lurched forward as I got on to the platform and I felt my heart skip more than a beat. Here we go… I said. Only to realise that it was a false alarm. I got on and realised – hang on – no Cousin J in the coach. I call her and realise she is floating around on the platform somewhere. I scream at her like a banshee on LSD. She rushes in. As she walks in the door, the train jerks to life and moves. I almost smack her. Apparently she forgot the coach number and was calling me – Dude, I had four bags to lug. I could either catch the train or take your call.
And then we hysterically lay down on our seat and laughed till the tears ran. We’d done it. We were on our way home. Being with an 18 year old makes you feel like one. We giggled, laughed, bought chips and biscuits for dinner instead of a meal and exchanged ear phones each time one of us got a good number on our iPods. Context is everything. Dressed in a pair of tights, a shift and flip flops, I looked less mommy and more older PhD student type (hah – I flatter myself) but it was fun to know that boys still offered to help with our luggage and tried to strike up conversations. Cousin J couldn’t get over the fact that her older sister, mother of two school going kids, local guardian to her, was the recipient of a pick up line. Good fun while it lasted. Then I showed them the kids’ pics on my phone and the matter ended there. Deep joy.
The meet was already in full swing by the time we got there and we missed the first day. The next morning I tried to pick up the threads and be of some use. Sadly I couldn’t do as much as I wanted to because I really didn’t know what was going on, but I could atleast ensure that Ma didn’t have anything to worry about at home. Meals were organised, tea was brought out, feet were rubbed and pressed and uncles and aunts took home pictures of me pressing their feet to guilt their own kids!
A very precious memory to me is of dressing up Cousin J for the first night. I held her in my arms as a beady eyed baby and she still turns to me for everything. As I pinned her pallu I sternly told her that I wasn’t going to do this too many more times. If she wanted to wear a saree, she’d jolly well learn to drape it herself. I lent her a tissue blouse that was rather demure until you saw the back – laced down to her waist with a sliver of her back showing, worn with a crepe saree in blazing orange and red. Just the right thing for an 18 year old at a party. The rude family I am from has called her Fats for years (they had unprintable nicks for me) and suddenly the chubby little girl transformed into a curvy young woman, bringing a lump to my throat. She has the most lovely natural curls and only wore mascara and a lipgloss. Youth needs no make up, does it? The glow is enough. She literally walked in beauty that night. Or maybe she didn’t. But I was her proud small mama, watching my beautiful baby carry herself and the saree with grace, looking far better than she would have in any little skirt or dress. There was a moment when she caught my eye across the room and saw me looking at her with such maternal pride that she forgot her ladylike demeanour and came running into my arms across the dancefloor, like a little baby.
The music was lovely, the food was exceptional and I was so proud of my parents for having done this by themselves. No help from the rest of the alumni association. But most of all, as I sat there manning the stall selling the coupons and souvenirs, I observed people around me. There were so many beautiful moments. An old friend was received personally at the station by my parents instead of being met at the help desk they’d set up for the other 100s of students coming in from across the world. He got off the train and saw my parents standing there (my dad was his room mate) and he broke out singing in his beautiful baritone – “The old hometown looks the same, as I step down from the train and there to meet me are my mama and my papa….” That of course made ma burst into tears. For those of you who don’t know recognise it – they are the lyrics to the song Green green grass of home.
So many old students walked up to my mother and mentioned being students of my grandfather who had also taught at the Institute. A national level badminton player and state football team goalie (even Anamika’s dad knew of him in the good old day), he was one of the best sportsmen they had seen. I watched ma’s eyes well up as people remembered her father fondly. I can only imagine what if felt like to her if I felt my own heart burst with pride. There were gifts galore and I was touched by the generosity. A group of ladies from Sri Lanka asked me about my children and I laughingly said Sri Lanka is the first place on my list of places to visit when I can afford it because the Bean loves elephants. Ten minutes later one of them pressed something into my hand -an elephant fridge magnet. Another gave me a bag of chocolates for the kids. A third gave me a Coach bag and some make up. I was overwhelmed by the bond they share and the generosity with which they spread their love.
Speaking of love, I saw so many kids like my own, pre-dating them by atleast 20 years. Ma took me around introducing me to couples, classmates of hers. Hindu married to Muslim, Christian married to Jain, Muslim married to Buddhist. I’d never have noticed really, because each couple was so in tune with each other. Their kids as mixed up as my two little mixed breeds, yet so comfortable in their skins. I wondered why the OA and I ever even stopped to wonder if we’d be able to make this mixed marriage work. So many people had done this before we were even born. Done it and done it well. What kind of idiots would prevent this today when so many more had done it so many years ago? I met their children. Tall, beautiful, confident of their place in the sun. Not a pride born of a long line of pure blood lines but a confidence arising from knowing what is essential inlife. Cutting through the crap of rituals and customs to the bare bones of humanity and compassion. Children who knew they were born of a deep, deep love. Not because their parents thought it was time to get married to someone suitable, but because they’d met, fallen hard, and loved deeply and not given a f**k about the world.
I saw my mother turn 18 again as she and her best friend giggled over something completely catty I am sure. She ignored the guy who ditched her friend 30 years ago and is still unforgiven. She bumped into a classmate who she always got into arguments with and at one point offered to shove him into the swimming pool. I watched in amusement. She’s a grandmother now and is most often reminding her grandchildren that violence gets you nowhere. I saw old flames and favourites gravitate towards her. Still more gentle in their ways with her than they would be with anyone else. Getting her a drink, telling her to put up her feet and rest awhile. I nodded approvingly at two of them – ‘Ma, I wouldn’t have minded one of those two uncles if you’d picked them over Pop.’ She grins. Pop glares at me and stalks off.
My father is one of those people who takes change in his stride. I am rigid and old fashioned in my ways and I think it is a reaction to bohemian parents who grew up in the 70s, listening to John Lennon and preaching peace. And I give them a lot of credit for letting my brother and I be the square people we are. Their generosity let us be the people we are. I am not sure if we have it in us to let our children be the people they want to be. Dad still has a young man’s stride. Alert, energetic and purposeful. He might have lost his hair (never mind daddy, God only covers imperfect heads with hair) but his charm has just grown over the years. I watch him stride across the dance floor and stop to ask an old lady for a dance, check on someone’s drink, offer to send the car to pick up someone else. My daddy strongest. And darlingest. He drives my mother mad because he just goes out of his way to be generous to people and never mind how that turns our lives upside down. Over the years I’ve learned to accept it as part of his nature but I can imagine how annoying that is for a spouse. Most of all though, I love seeing my dad when his classmates are around- didn’t I say, context is everything?
And so when Dad went up on the stage and gave the band a break, I smiled. I love his voice and the way he is the life of any party. He forgets lyrics and makes them up as he goes along but he has a way of getting the crowd to participate that I’ve yet to come across in any one else. The mad sibling is good, but still not a patch on the old man. Their old college band is no longer together, but Dad’s brother, and three other friends can still put up a good show. I grabbed a camera and went up to get pictures, realising that the 5 deep voices in harmony were something I could not capture on film. And then my aunt got up and headed close up to the stage with a handycam. She’d spent the day helping out too and after picnics, parties and whatnots, this third day was telling on her as well. As she stood there, barefeet (having discarded her heels somewhere) I looked over her shoulder at the monitor and even though her face showed exhaustion, the focus on my uncle spoke of a wifely pride she didn’t need to vocalise.
Some of the songs they sang, I associate only with them. I want to share some of them with you for your listening pleasure. The words are beautiful. So much more when you realise that 5 men, aged 50 plus meeting after 30 years just walked up on stage and performed this on stage without a minute of practice, in perfect harmony. That’s what friendship means. Being in tune with each other. The words are so apt – “When you’re down and troubled, And you need a helping hand, And nothing, nothing is going right. Close your eyes and think of me, And soon I will be there, To brighten even your darkest nights. You just call out my name, And you know wherever I am, I’ll come running, To see you again. Winter, spring , summer, or fall, All you have to do is call And I’ll be there … You’ve got a friend.”
And then they played the song that is always my mother’s undoing. Greenfields. The words rang out, each of them taking their note instinctively – high here, low there… Fingers moved confidently on the strings and the keys. A harmonica rang out. Dad was singing with his eyes closed. Ma was looking at him with an indefinable expression in her eyes. Me, I was an outsider just looking in through the window. Knowing all of a sudden that I was here today because of this love. A product of this love. I could see them as they might have been. A black and white tableau. The slim Bengali-Garhwali girl in the chiffon saree, her thick plait hanging down her back. The dimpled, skinny Tamilian boy in his bell bottoms and his thick shock of hair. I see them meet across a college football field, a mess table, a chemistry lab. It’s hard to be in the presence of love and not be caught up in the force field. And I wonder what kind of mean spirited people tried to prevent the force of this love. What kind of jealous fools would want to break up something so elemental and beautiful. I see the others in the room. Their old faces blur and disappear. Heartache, children, job loss, migration, ailments, terminal diseases, financial woes, death, everything vanishes and a room full of young people stand around in black and white. Eyes full of hope and wonder. The magic of music. I only wish my brother had been there.
I don’t know if I will ever make editor. I don’t know if I will ever write a book. I don’t know if I will live to see my children grow. I don’t know if I will travel abroad and see wonderful places. But it doesn’t matter. In the last few weeks I’ve had moments of intense happiness, almost bordering on pain. I’ve felt my heart fill up and leave me with enough contentment to take me through many years.
And so to the two people who gave me life and then let me live it on my own terms, I dedicate this song. Just to see you cry, Ma. And if this post made no sense to the rest of the world, thats okay. This one was for mamma and dada